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The Diversity of Today’s Cutting Edge Sci-Fi

Capsule Homes by Csaba BánátiWhen we talk about science fiction we divide it up. It’s too big for a single shelf, we have to break it into subgenres and swallow it in pieces. There’s hard sci-fi, which typically deals with complicated scientific concepts. I usually call this technical sci-fi, since it’s often predicated on the idea that the science it describes is actually possible; it derives from existing inventions and innovations. There is also science fantasy, which blends fantastical worlds with technology in wonderful ways. There are utopias, dystopias, post-apocalyptic wastelands, future history, interstellar wars, intergalactic space operas, and speculative “what-if” near-future scenarios. There’s time travel and terraforming and alien invasion, and at any time you may encounter two or three or five of these things all in the same book.

That’s the true beauty of science fiction: its only limitation is human imagination. It’s a genre without walls. It is impossible to define, because the definition expands every time a new author or screenwriter picks up a pen. It never loses its appeal because it changes with the times. When twenty-one-year-old Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, widely considered the first science fiction novel, she broke new ground with a genre that would continue the tradition of social commentary, keen political observation, and celebration of human ingenuity.

Illustration for Novum Trilogy by QrumzsjemIn light of its endless mutability, what does a phrase like “the cutting edge of sci-fi” even mean? Once upon a time it was Isaac Asimov exploring the three laws of robotics, or inventing future history. It was Larry Niven and David Brin envisioning alien worlds and races so different from our own as to be almost ludicrous. It was Frank Herbert telling us that fear is the mind-killer on a desert world like and impossibly unlike Earth. It was Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock boldly going into a universe where exploration was embraced and diplomacy, rather than war, was prized. Sci-fi has always been self-aware, so Douglas Adams poking fun at superluminal travel and also the baffling popularity of Cricket fit right in.

I love the classics, and it is impossible to read sci-fi without discovering references to Heinlein, Clarke, Gibson, Pohl, Anderson, Wells, and Bradbury, but they are all a bit dated by now. Science has moved forward, social norms have moved forward, the political landscape is different, and several generations of authors have had their chance to play in space. Instead of reading off a list of old white men when we talk about the great names of science fiction, we can broaden our scope to include the rest of the human race.

I’ve put together a list of some recent titles and authors whose work has broken new ground, found new wormholes to fly through, and pushed at the event horizon of science fiction’s known universe. I hope it will help those discovering the genre as well as those who already know and love it find books in new directions. And so, without further ado, we begin by acknowledging some of the greats of the fairly recent past.

Kindred (cover)Octavia E. Butler, who with all of her work has explored the concept of human otherness, whether it be through the medium of aliens, human adaptation, or complex exploration of race. She’s won multiple awards with her writing from 1980 to 2012, and her books and short stories remain important and relevant in the present day. She is best known for Kindred and her Earthseed duology.

Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote enduring children’s classics that are still well-read and loved today. The world would be a poorer place without A Wrinkle in Time.

Ursula K. Le Guin, who wrote non-white protagonists before it was cool, and changed the face of both Fantasy and sci-fi forever with her thoughtful explorations of humanity, society, and what it means to be literary. The Left Hand of Darkness is a landmark of intellectual sci-fi.

More recently a few of the names making waves in science fiction are:

Ann Leckie with Ancillary Justice and its sequels, which are a brilliant look at consciousness, gender, and what it means to be human, all framed as a political space drama where the main character used to be a ship.

Lagoon (cover)Nnedi Okorafor, who brings Africa into the world of sci-fi. In Lagoon First Contact is made not in North America or Tokyo, but off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. The narration combines Nigerian folk tales with the traditional First Contact framework, using local dialects to beautiful effect. Okorafor continues subverting stereotypes with the triumphant Binti, a novella about a young Himba girl who is the first of her people to go to Oomza University, the best in the Galaxy. Unfortunately there’s the little problem of an alien war in the way…

Cixin Liu is one of China’s most beloved sci-fi writers, recently translated and published in English. The Three-Body Problem combines physics, alien invasion, and a thoroughly non-Western view of the world for a refreshing look at how humanity might react to an impending colonization effort by extraterrestrials.

Kameron Hurley, whose Bel Dame Apocrypha series is a masterpiece of science fantasy worldbuilding. The classic Arthur C. Clarke quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” has never been more apt. Hurley’s books deal with religion, gender bias, bugs, and upending expectations. They’re also dark as dark can be, with the grimy feel of urban fantasy or a particularly bloody noir.

Lightless (cover)C. A. Higgins debuted with Lightless, which starts out as one thing and ends up being something else entirely. It’s a beautiful look at the trials of motherhood and personal relationships in the black of space. It’s told from the perspective of a female mechanic who understands her ship like no one else and must protect it when everything begin to fall apart.

Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, a funny and brilliant standalone look at a possible near future where human expeditions go to Mars semi-regularly. His story is essentially an adventure survival story, written with humor, thoughtfulness, and impressive attention to scientific detail. It’s a story of the strength of humanity and our capacity for endless innovation.

Emily St. John Mandel, whose Station Eleven electrified the world of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. In its sprawling narrative a Shakespearean theatre troupe performs for scattered survivors on the principle that survival is insufficient. It examines the beauty of the ordinary in extraordinary circumstances and reminds us to appreciate the little, normal things in life.

Honorable Mention: John Scalzi, N. K. Jemisin, Paolo Bacigalupi, Wesley Chu, China Miéville, Catherynne Valente, Aliette de Bodard, Margaret Atwood, Mira Grant, and many, many more.

All the Worlds to See by Julie Dillon

When I started thinking about this list I ran into trouble almost immediately. There are so many phenomenal writers out there, far too many to list in a single article! I haven’t even started on the wealth of television and movies exploring strange new worlds, and although some of these authors have published collections of short stories, I deliberately did not include short story writers. Whether you like aliens, spaceships, worldbuilding, or AI, the world of contemporary sci-fi has something for you. Strap on your jetpack and goggles and you’re on your way!

Title image by Julie Dillon.

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5 Comments

  1. Alphonse says:

    In my opinion, great science fiction never gets out of date. Maybe you can feel their age now and then, but that’s part of their charm.

    I have not read anything of J.-H. Rosny aîné yet, so I can’t include or exclude him, but in general, modern science fiction (at least for me) starts with H.G. Wells. While a lot of work that came before The Time Machine contains science fiction elements, they just feels like that; stories with elements of science fiction without actually being science fiction.

    “Instead of reading off a list of old white men when we talk about the great names of science fiction, we can broaden our scope to include the rest of the human race.”

    I hope their race, age and gender doesn’t feel like a problem. The reason why science fiction was shaped and dominated by white males back then is very simply; the majority of writers were white males. What should you do? Force more females and authors of other races to write more science fiction to even things out? Editors accepted and judged stores on their own merit. The only exception would be if a writer was so popular that his (or her) name alone made it as safe bet. But not even they were immune if it was a bad story.
    New direction and branching should happen because of the natural evolution of the genre, not as an conscious effort to get as far away from its older forms as possible for no other reason than to get away from what was before. But of course, the genre will evolve anyway, for both good and sometimes worse, and leave a trail of interesting works behind it.

    • Sonia Grace says:

      Hi Alphonse,

      I’m not saying I don’t love the classics! I do. I really, really do, and I reread my old favourites all the time. That doesn’t change the fact that they’re wildly out of date. They do have charm, but there’s also a lot of erasure in them – erasure of women, people of colour, sexualities other than red-blooded straight male, etc. This is a product of the time they were written in and the unconscious or conscious bias of the authors, editors, and publishers, but that’s a reason, not an excuse.

      The majority of writers getting PUBLISHED were white men. There have been women writing and writing well for centuries, even thousands of years. Likewise there have been writers from every culture with a written language ever since the first accountant scratched down a notation on a clay tablet. There’s no lack of material, but there is a lack of opportunity. For this reason it is important to seek out literature from people other than white men. We’re inundated by male writers – and we love them! There’s nothing wrong with being a white man with a story to tell. If it’s a good story then I want to read it. The problem is that it has always been harder to get published as a woman, it’s always been even harder as a woman of colour.

      As a reader, I want to read new and exciting stories. I want perspectives I’ve never seen with characters that feel fresh and new. I want excitement! I also read a lot, so sometimes it can feel like I’m rehashing the same old same old over and over again. I do make a conscious effort to find new forms of science fiction, because that’s what sci-fi is about. It has always been about innovation, pushing boundaries, and breaking new ground. I love the classics, but I acknowledge their flaws, and I try to expand my experience beyond the things I know. I think that’s an integral part of reading and of life.

      • Alphonse says:

        Hi

        Are you sure the problems women in the business have faced are entirely correct? According to Leigh Brackett, females never faced any problems because of their gender: http://www.tangentonline.com/interviews-columnsmenu-166/1270-classic-leigh-brackett-a-edmond-hamilton-interview

        There is a book called “Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965”, which is referring to C.L. Moore, amongst others. She did not use her full name not because of the readers or editors, but because she was afraid her boss would find out about it and fire her: https://books.google.no/books?id=ZoNDebTvUnsC&pg=PA114&dq=C.+L.+Moore+bank+1933+livelihood&hl=no&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiYvLXz19jLAhWLC5oKHSqkDLgQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=C.%20L.%20Moore%20bank%201933%20livelihood&f=false

        Haven’t read so much about non-white writers of science fiction and fantasy being rejected because of their race, so I can’t say much about the topic, but I have never heard any specific examples.

        I agree about diversity in the form of ideas, concepts and settings and so on. But including characters of a specific gender, orientation or race just for the sake of principle, is no better than leaving them out for the same reason. It has to feel natural, not forced or fake. The story may be pure imagination, but the characters and group dynamics has to feel real. Not being allowed to write whatever you want if that means excluding certain elements many today feels needs to be included in a story, as long as the excluding itself is the only “crime”, would feel like a straightjacket. In addition to diversity, I want freedom for the writers. If someone wants to write a novel with no other characters than lesbian black women, or white straight males, or whatever, then let them. There are always someone who is willing to read it, and some who are not. All I personally expect is that whatever message they may (or may not) have, it needs to serve the story, not the other way around. Not that they are breaking any rules if they do, it is just that for me, that’s not what fiction is about..

        • Overlord says:

          Yes women do face inequality in a business setting. Just look at the pay discrepancy in an average town.

          Not all women authors chose a pen name to hide their sex, but a lot did and some still do.

          I agree with you to an extent, but it depends on your intentions. If you are doing it because no one will read your book otherwise, then that is an issue. If when you are drafting your book you think, ‘wow… all my characters are straight white males’ and you recognise that as a weakness in the creation of your world and also likely to minimise the types of characters you have, then this is something very different. A lot of people around the world are conditioned to have the straight, white male as their ‘default’ for a character. This is a sad thing, but being aware of it and making an effort to explore other types of people when you realise you’ve fallen into this trap isn’t admitting that you are a monster or compromising on your freedom… As you say, perhaps there is some reason that every single cheater in your novel is of the same sex, race and orientation – that’s cool, but modern readers will want an explanation for this… the same thing would happen if all dogs were blonde or all pigs were exactly the same size. If you write a world that lacks variation that will come across as a weakness of the author, because a world without variation seems pretty implausible.

          • Alphonse says:

            It’s true that there is still pay differences between the sexes. But I feel that is a slightly different topic. When it comes to science fiction and fantasy, are there those who refuse to read it if it is written by a woman? Probably, but many enough to make a noticeable difference in the sales of a book? That’s what the links were about. It seems the publishers are sometimes afraid that readers will not read it if they are aware of the gender of the author, like J.K. Rowling. It’s about assumptions about the readers. The science fiction society in America during the pulp era and the golden age was apparently more like a club who welcomed everybody who wanted to become a member, no matter the gender. It is not that way any more, as seen last year with the Hugos. How it is here in Europe I don’t know, but the traditions are a little different and not as visible.

            If you are writing a novel, it depends on how many characters there are. If it is just a handful of friends, it is not unlikely they all have the same orientation. If you are writing something like A Song of Ice and Fire with hundreds of characters, purse statistics says that at least someone of them are gay. And the orientation itself becomes part of the plot and a driving force in the story.

            These days choosing gender, race and orientation in characters has to be a very conscious choice already from the start. In the old days many writers didn’t give it a second thought, but just filled their fiction with the kind of characters they were used to, not because they had anything against other alternatives. And yes, of course there has to be an explanation if you are writing a novel in present times where all the characters are identical about these things. The question is if anyone would publish it no matter how good the reasons for this setting might be. Or if they feel obligated to only publish material with a minimum of diversity, as diversity amongst the characters is very common today.
            It’s also about the culture you live in. If you live in Japan, the main characters will often be Japanese. Not because they have anything against white people.
            To be honest, I don’t find it that realistic that we still have separate races living together in multicultural societies hundreds or even thousands of years from now, since they would all have been mixed (like in Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day). It depends on how much you want your work to be a reflection of your own society.

            Reading really old stuff that is not politically correct does not bother me as long as it does not make me feel uncomfortable (but sometimes it does make you lift an eyebrow, like in Tarzan and the Ant Men, where the males takes revenge on the matriarchal females, even if there is no denial the women were not much better, or in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, where Professor Challenger’s view on servants is very noticeable).

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